Phillies-Padres Game Thread 4/21/12

The Phillies are halfway through their grueling ten-game road trip. Game six of ten will be played tonight in San Diego as Roy Halladay matches up against Cory Luebke. Halladay has been nothing short of dominant thus far after a spring in which he had the Phillies fan base concerned. Despite the lack of offense, Doc has won all three of his starts so far with a 1.17 ERA. Meanwhile, Luebke is an up-and-coming lefty, just 27 years old. He broke out last year with a 3.29 ERA, a 9.9 K/9, and 2.8 BB/9 in 140 innings between the starting rotation and the bullpen. Expect the offensive impotency to continue from both sides.

Lineups

Phillies

Padres

You know what to do in the comments. I won’t be around, as I couldn’t possibly miss Jon “Bones” Jones in the UFC tonight.

EDIT: But Mike will be, so he’ll be starting the chat a few minutes before first pitch.

An Economic Theory of Sports Fandom

As sports fans, we really need to find out ways to have fun. Occasionally, it’s useful to feel anger or heartbreak at the results of a sporting event. The catharsis from watching, say, Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS can be momentarily agonizing but ultimately cleansing and rewarding, like getting out of bed to work out on a rainy day or taking a huge dump after a 12-hour car ride. But in general, if following sports makes you unhappy more than it makes you happy, you probably ought to stop.

I mean, being a sports fan is a completely optional undertaking that serves no purpose other than providing enjoyment and entertainment. Hundreds of millions of Americans opt out of fandom, and no one thinks any less of them, because deep down we understand that getting worked up (for better or for worse) over men you don’t know playing a game with a great deal of inherent randomness, the outcome of which is entirely outside your control. It’s only worth doing if, on balance, it does you good.

***

We haven’t had to think about that a whole lot, because the past few years have been really good for Phillies fans. When your team wins, it’s hard not to enjoy sports. But now we’re facing the possibility that the good times may not continue to roll for much longer. Of course, the Phillies are 7-7, four games out of first place , with more than 90 percent of the season to play. I’d hesitate to draw any conclusions about two weeks and change of baseball, other than the direction in which one is supposed to run the bases. So it’ s possible, even likely, that the Phillies will pick it up and make the playoffs again this season. In that case, this discussion can be tabled for a while longer.

But in the absence of continued and inexorable success, how do we derive enjoyment from sports? In my mind, it’s a communal thing–I have a lot of fun talking to my friends about baseball, and the Phillies in particular, and always have. And that’s a bigger draw than ever. I’ve always enjoyed discussing baseball with my dad, and a group of about half a dozen friends who gather religiously for major sporting events, but now, I’m involved in an ongoing, two-way conversation primarily about the Phillies with probably about 90 to 100 people on Twitter. These are relative strangers, for the most part–of my internet baseball friends, I’d say I’ve met ten percent in person more than once. Sports fandom creates and strengthens friendships–we trade ideas, jokes, and analysis, and generally everyone has a good time.

For me, at least, blogging is another check in the positive utility column–I get to combine the thing I like doing most (writing) with the thing I like thinking about most (baseball).

But those aren’t really specific to baseball. We can have friends outside of sports. What intrinsic value does baseball have if your team isn’t winning?

***

Remember the days of $7 upper-deck tickets at the Vet going unsold? You think people are flocking to Citizens Bank Park because the building is nicer? They’re turning out in droves because they’re more willing to plunk down $150 to take the family out to the ballpark when the Phillies are likely to win.

I went to all three games of a weekend series in Pittsburgh last June. When we arrived, the Pirates fans were sort of subdued and docile, good-naturedly tickled by the sight of a full PNC Park. But after the Pirates took the first two games of the series, the friendly, welcoming Pittsburghers disappeared, only to be replaced by a horde of rowdy, screaming, confrontational men and women, every inch as unaccommodating to interlopers as the national media thinks Philly fans are. Essentially, two wins in two days turned Pirates fans from extremely pleasant folk into Penguins and Steelers fans–arrogant, loud, pushy, and completely unconcerned with their image outside the city, as long as everyone knows how morally superior their teams are.

Not to single out Pittsburgh fans–every fan base has its jackasses, and just as I’d rather not be judged by those morons who beat up a Rangers fan after the Winter Classic, I don’t really believe all Pittsburghers are capable of hurling racist abuse at Wayne Simmonds over the internet. I only tell that story to illustrate what a profound effect winning can have on a fan’s psyche. Winning isn’t really everything, but it counts for a lot.

***

The key to understanding rational action is understanding an individual’s utility function. In any theory of behavior based on rational choice, we have to assume that an individual is going to do what he believes is best for him. Rational choice theories assume people act to maximize what is called utility, a catch-all measure of overall happiness or well-being, and figuring out what goes into that basket allows us to predict and evaluate behavior.

So a fan’s utility, we’ve established, is determined by the following:

  • W: How much the team wins (positive)
  • S: The strength of social bonds formed as a result of being part of a fan community (positive)
  • C: Cost of following the team in time and money (negative)
  • D: Disappointment over the team not living up to expectations (negative)

Therefore, if (W+S) > (C+D), it’s rational to be a sports fan. If not, you’re better off getting into decoupage or something. Overwhelmingly, the S function is so much bigger than the others that even fans of losing teams will still watch. This is borne out by the tendency of losing teams with huge fan bases and longstanding communal traditions (the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Browns, for instance) having large and ardent fan bases while teams with shallower roots (the Charlotte Bobcats and Columbus Blue Jackets) struggle to draw without being particularly less successful than their counterparts.

There’s got to be more than that, though. There’s a longstanding tradition in political science–and particularly in international relations, the discipline I come from–of explaining away irrational behavior by tinkering with the utility function until behavior becomes rational. We could stand to add a term or two.

***

If the Phillies got 86-76 and miss the playoffs this season, it won’t be as enjoyable as if they had done so in 2005 or so, because the team was perceived to be on the rise then, and such is not the case now, no matter how optimistic you might be about the 2012 vintage of the Phillies.

Hope for the future has to factor into the rationality of sports fandom somewhere. Fans of the Galactus of No. 1 overall picks, the Edmonton Oilers, are feeling this in hockey, as Penguins fans did coming out of the lockout. With the Kansas City Royals and Washington Nationals on the rise, their fans are in a good spot, perhaps with the hope of the division title promised in 2014 or 2015 might come a couple years early.

The good news for Phillies fans is that this trend of aging can’t go on forever. Even assuming the worst-case scenario for 2012–missing the playoffs, Utley and Howard irreparably damaged, and Cole Hamels leaving via free agency, by 2014, we’re going to see the end of some of those long-term, big-money contracts to aging veterans. That bottoming out may only take one or two years, and the Phillies will once again, by 2015 or so, be a team with a huge fan base, a top-5 media market, a nice stadium, more money than it knows what to do with, and a recent history of success–those sound like the building blocks of a contender to me. And even assuming the worst, that should happen in less time from now than has passed since the Phillies won the World Series.

Maybe the H term works for Phillies fans, because those of us who are panicking over the long view could probably stand to extend our view a little longer still. But is that enough to keep us from despairing if the Phillies have a real banana peel of a 2012?

***

I realized something during what will probably just be known as the Cain-Lee game. I should be beside myself that the Phillies got 10 shutout innings from their starter and still managed to lose. I should be killing hostages after the Phillies went out of their way to put a man at the top of the lineup who not only goes weeks bewteen walks and extra-base hits, but can’t even keep his feet in the batter’s box on a bunt. But I’m not. I’m finding all of this strangely enjoyable.

I alluded here to the idea that we watch sports not only because of an emotional attachment to the fortunes of a particular team, or to see a story play out, but something else.

When I was a freshman in college, I was walking with a friend from our dorm to the parking garage to get his car. On our way across the center of campus, we passed by three people: one wearing a panda costume playing soccer with a person in a mouse costume, with a third individual taking photographs. My friend turned to me and said, “I know this is a cliche, but I mean it this time: there’s something you don’t see every day.” From this we get the A term: aesthetics, and the final form of the economic theory of sports fandom:

It is rational to be a sports fan if: (W+S+H+A) > (C+D)

This is where the 2012 Phillies come good. Even if they completely hump the bunk, the Phillies are made up almost entirely of players with the potential to do something extraordinary. For Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee, the potential is to be extraordinary, leading to games like Lee’s 10 shutout innings, or either one of Halladay’s no-hitters. The Phillies also have several players with the ability to turn outstanding plays on defense, most notably Placido Polanco and Freddy Galvis, who have been a delight to watch thus far this season.

But we’re used to watching great things. This team is unique in its ability to produce weirdness. We get Juan Pierre playing lawn darts with his throws from left field. We have the second iteration of the Cole Hamels vs. Cliff Lee home run derby, and Freddy Galvis trying to systematically solve his on-base crisis the way most of us would try to solve a Rubik’s Cube–systematically and over a very long period of time. We get this new, creative bit of strategy from Charlie Manuel, what with the bunting and reliever usage. Though in this case, Manuel is creative in the same way the Children’s Crusade was creative. Think about it–the worst team in the history of modern baseball was the 1962 Mets, and they’ve gone down in history as distinct and strangely compelling.

It’s only been 14 games, but so far, the Phillies have in most cases either 1) won the game or 2) lost in dramatic, entertaining, often absurd fashion. I’m not sure there’s much more we can ask, and that’s what I’m going to tell myself from now on when the Phillies lose.

To sum up, there’s no way 2012 isn’t going to be unbelievably entertaining. Either the Phillies are going to overcome their offensive impotence and stage another playoff run, or they’re going to fall short in hilarious and absurd fashion. We’re all rooting for the first scenario, but if the second comes to pass, there may come a time when maximizing the A term in the utility function is the best thing. Sit back and enjoy the absurdity, boys and girls, because if you do, there’s no possible way not to enjoy the Phillies.

An Answer for the Sake of an Answer

Humans, as unique as we like like to portray ourselves, are remarkably easy to predict when we wonder. We notice something peculiar, intently observe the phenomenon, and try to come up with an explanation. Rarely, through the course of human history, has the conclusion been “we need to wait for more information.” This is why we homosapiens used to believe that the Earth was flat and that our planet was the center of the universe. In baseball, we act the same way, by and large. We notice peculiar early-season performances, assess them, and come up with a conclusion to satisfy our curiosity, often poorly-researched and made with impatience.

For example, a hitter will go 7-for-38 in his first 14 games. Fans and talking heads, who have watched most or all of those games, will offer something to the tune of “he’s just not seeing the ball well” or “his timing is off”, among any number of cliches. Hilariously, the better response to that 7-for-38 would have been a simple shrug of the shoulders. That is because 38 plate appearances tell us almost nothing about a hitter. As Brotherly Glove author Eric Seidman pointed out at FanGraphs several years ago, we need at least 150 PA for any of the truly meaningful stats to start to tell us anything useful about a player.

Why is that? One human comes from a group of other humans who generally share similar characteristics. This is as true for baseball players as it is for swimmers or biology students in a classroom. Given small samples, the mean of the population (all baseball players, all swimmers, all biology students, etc.) tells you more about any one player’s likely future performance than his current performance data. When the sample size grows large enough, we can make stronger inferences about a person’s skill level. In other words, we become more confident in what we know about the person in question.

For example, the world record for the 50 meter freestyle in swimming is 20.9 seconds held by Brazil’s César Cielo. I don’t know anything about swimming, but let’s say that the average time is 25 seconds. At the start of a new season, a team’s third-best swimmer (let’s call him Kwyjibo) puts up times of 28, 37, and 33 seconds. The fans start to panic. “Kwyjibo has lost it”, they say. “He’s putting too much pressure on himself!” Kwyjibo, however, is very much like his swimming peers, so he is more likely to put up times around 25 seconds than his current average of 33 seconds in three trials. You could completely ignore his current-season information, using only the population mean, and you will accurately predict Kwyjibo’s future performance more accurately than those who use his current-season information a vast majority of the time, until you have an appropriate number of trials.

If you weren’t able to decipher it above, the cited 7-for-38 player is John Mayberry, Jr. After a breakout 2011 season in which he posted a .369 weighted on-base average (wOBA; the league average was .316) in a shade under 300 PA, he sits with a paltry .173 mark as of this writing. His slow start has a lot of Phillies fans concerned as the offense collectively has been impotent and former top prospect Domonic Brown continues to wither away with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Most of the explanations for Mayberry’s start — e.g. “he’s just not seeing the ball well” — tell us less about his likely future performance than the National League averages. Hitting coach Greg Gross says that Mayberry starts to put pressure on himself and changes his batting stance slightly. Via Matt Gelb:

Hitting coach Greg Gross has preached consistency and is happy that Mayberry has not attempted any drastic experiments to correct his problems.

But Gross sees a player who does everything correctly behind the scenes only to press once he’s at the plate. The sign is when Mayberry crouches more than usual. It’s his way of “grinding through it,” Gross said.

April 5, 2012 @ Pittsburgh

April 20, 2012 @ San Diego

Now, I don’t know about you, but in these .gifs, I don’t see much of a difference. The first is from the first game of the season in which Mayberry had two hits and, ostensibly, was not pressing. The second is from last night’s game in San Diego when, ostensibly, Mayberry was pressing.

Below are stills. The point of comparison is directly after Mayberry’s front foot comes back down. (Please make a slight mental adjustment for the difference in camera angles.)

The reason why I am stressing this point is because human beings are programmed to satisfy their curiosity with an answer. Gross will repeat his incorrect conclusion about Mayberry because that sounds better than “small sample size”, the general public will accept it and repeat it verbatim because that satiates them better than “small sample size”, when all along, the better response was a shoulder-shrug and “small sample size.” You can replace “small sample size” with any number of non-sequiturs as well, such as Base Ba’al, luck dragons, or chaos.

It very well could be true that Mayberry will be worse in 2012 than he was last year. In fact, that will likely be the case when all is said and done —  PECOTA did project a .740 OPS for him this year, a 110-point decline from last year. However, his first 40 trips to the plate have almost no impact on that conclusion whatsoever. When he starts to approach 150 plate appearances, then we can start to worry if he still hasn’t drawn a walk and one out of every four fly balls end up in the gloves of infielders. Until then, accept the randomness and regress his remaining plate appearances towards the MLB average.

In closing, the following chart shows the ten qualified players who had the lowest OPS in baseball at the end of April last year, along with their OPS from the next game through the end of the season. Each player improved, and improved substantially. (click to enlarge)

I would bet that the claims you’re hearing about Mayberry — that he’s pressing, not seeing the ball well, etc. — were the same things being said of the players depicted in the chart, especially those who are more well-known and thus more likely to cause worry. The lesson is to be indifferent to the early part of the season.